Because people make most of their food decisions at the supermarket, dietitian Leni Reed figured, "why not teach them where all the props are?"
That's why Reed founded Supermarket Savvy, a suburban Virginia nutrition education and communications company that gives aisle-by-aisle tours of supermarkets. Reed also has written two videotapes about how to shop wisely and developed a comprehensive instructional manual for those who want to give their own tours.
"When you shop, you're up against Madison Avenue," said Reed, who believes that today's food labels are often liberally laced with hype intended to make products appear healthier than they really are.
Formerly a faculty member at the University of Texas and the University of Oklahoma, Reed founded Supermarket Savvy in 1984 while living in Dallas. She moved to the Washington area last year and expects to give tours at a Giant Food in Herndon later this month.
Following are 10 food-related myths Reed discusses in her videos and supermarket tours.
1) Mayonnaise contains a lot of cholesterol.
Not true, said Reed; it's "an insignificant source." Most commercial mayonnaises contain only 5 or 10 milligrams of dietary cholesterol, so the "no-cholesterol" versions are really not much different. While mayonnaise is a significant source of calories and fat, Reed instead suggests purchasing low-calorie mayonnaise, diluting low-calorie mayonnaise with nonfat plain yogurt or simply using mustard on sandwiches.
2) Liquid nondairy coffee creamers, which frequently state on their labels that they have "no cholesterol" and are "low in saturated fat," are a healthier alternative to milk in coffee.
Reed calculated that compared to whole milk, some of these creamers can have as much as four times the fat, while roughly the same amount of saturated fat per tablespoon. As for cholesterol, whole milk contains two milligrams per tablespoon -- a negligible amount.
If you drink only a cup of coffee daily, it's no big deal to use nondairy creamers, said Reed. But for those who drink a lot of coffee or use a lot of creamer per cup, the fat can really add up. Aside from drinking your coffee black, Reed suggests buying evaporated skimmed milk.
3) Bread is a significant source of fat.
Croissants and muffins may be, but most sliced breads contain very little fat. Reed said many participants on her tours miss the point, lamenting that they can't find a bread that doesn't contain vegetable oil. As a result, they may end up with a white Italian bread because it has no fat, when they would better off buying a high-fiber whole wheat with a negligible amount of vegetable oil, she said.
4) Any cookie or cracker that contains lard, coconut or palm oils will be high in fat and saturated fat.
It depends on how much of those fats are used, said Reed. Some products that contain hydrogenated soybean or other vegetable oils may actually have more fat and saturated fat than those made with lard or tropical oils. The problem, of course, is that not all cookie and cracker products carry nutrition information, so it's impossible to tell. Reed suggests calling the company to find out.
For example, Nabisco's Devil's Food cookies, which contain lard and/or beef fat and/or palm oil, contain less than one gram of fat per ounce, Reed said. Keebler's Pecan Sandies, made with partially hydrogenated soybean oil, contain 10 grams of fat per ounce and two grams of saturated fat.
5) Avoid red meat.
There is no reason to avoid lean cuts of beef, said Reed. Choose cuts with names that include the word "round" or "loin." Many people make the mistake of avoiding beef and switching to cheese, which can have as much if not more fat and saturated fat.
6) All pork is high in fat.
A lot of it is -- like bacon and spareribs. But pork tenderloin, according to Reed, has the same amount of fat as skinless chicken breast.
7) Fruit drinks have less sugar than soft drinks.
Look for 100 percent juice products, said Reed. However, cranberry juice cocktail can have more sugar than a Coke.
8) Chicken and turkey hotdogs are a better bet than those made with beef or pork.
Compare the labels. Hormel's Light & Lean hot dogs, made with beef and pork, contain 2.5 grams of fat per ounce compared with Holly Farms Chicken franks at 6.5 grams of fat per ounce, according to Reed.
9) When a processed luncheon meat claims to be "85 percent fat free," it must be pretty low in fat.
"Ignore all that stuff," said Reed. Claims such as those refer to the amount of fat by weight; the product could still derive more than 80 percent of its calories from fat. "Go for the fine print," she said. Reed suggests looking for processed meats with less than one gram of fat per ounce.
10) Products with fewer calories are always better.
When choosing between frozen dinners or other pre-portioned foods, it's wiser to choose the product with a few more calories but less fat, Reed said. "It's better to be slim and healthy," she noted, "not just slim."
Eating Right appears on alternate Tuesdays.